Today I’d like to talk about the other characters. The ones who surround your protagonist, giving them context, relationships, foils, and comedic relief.
Before we discuss considerations when developing these secondary characters, let’s define who they are. Secondary characters – sometimes also called side or supporting characters – are those who appear in multiple scenes with the protagonist. While they may be involved in a subplot of their own, they aren’t the focus of the main storyline.
Secondary characters have the job of helping drive the story forward. The biggest way they do this is by giving the main character someone to talk to. They can help the protagonist grow, either by providing counsel or by providing obstacles. Sometimes they provide a relief from the emotional tension, and other times they add to it.
The most important thing about secondary characters is that they are integral to the story in some way. In other words, their absence would change the story in a significant way. This is how we distinguish secondary characters from characters that don’t do any of this, which are often called tertiary characters. These tertiary characters usually only appear once or twice, and they don’t move the story forward in any way. They are just observed by the protagonist or narrator. Examples of tertiary characters might be the waiter at the restaurant, the child screaming in the store, the crossing guard. I usually don’t even name these characters unless it’s necessary, because it adds to what the reader has to remember for no good reason.
So back to the secondary characters, those around the main character who are helping the story move forward and the protagonist to grow and change. There are some traditional roles that these characters can take. A secondary character could be a sidekick, or companion, to the protagonist. This is often a person that the protagonist can talk to and bounce ideas off of. It is also a person who the protagonist can inadvertently hurt, which can add emotional tension. Next we have the foil – someone who is just always making things a little harder for the protagonist. It’s also often someone who is the opposite of the protagonist in some ways. Think Draco Malfoy to Harry Potter. Next we have secondary characters who are roadblocks. These are characters who are, in one specific way, keeping the protagonist from getting what they want. And finally, we have the antagonist, the character against whom the protagonist bumps throughout the entire story, until the end when the antagonist is defeated in some way. Usually.
So those are some traditional roles a secondary character can take. But, often, the exact role of the secondary character is a little less defined, a little more nuanced or blurry. This is why asking some key questions can be really useful as you begin to develop your secondary characters.
Question 1: What is this character’s purpose in this story, with regard to the protagonist’s internal change? Remember, everything in your story is about supporting the change that the protagonist is going to go through. So how is your secondary character supporting that change?
Question 2: How can I make this character a full person? I made the mistake of not asking this question when I wrote my first middle grade book, Unspoken. In that book, there is a character named Ashley who is a very stereotypical bully. Although I did make an attempt to redeem her slightly at the end, she remains to this day a pretty flat character in my mind. What I wish I’d done is gotten to know her better. I needed to know what made her the way she was, even if that information never appeared on the page.
Question 3: Will the secondary character change over the course of the story? They don’t have to, but sometimes they do. We sometimes see this with a parent or spouse who has been acting one way through the story until they have their own realization and make some changes. While this doesn’t need to be quite as intricately shown on the page as it does for the protagonist, you still need to know why it’s happening. If your answer to this question of whether the secondary character will change is yes, I recommend you go back to episode #55 about writing believable characters and take your secondary character through that process.
Writers, this week, spend some time with your secondary characters. Get to know them. Define their role in the story as it pertains to the protagonist’s growth. And, most importantly, make them as full of a person as they can be. Your reader will be glad that you did. I’ll talk to you next week!